Groups Challenge Federal Decision to Waste Natural Gas, Ignore Global Warming at Colorado Coal Mine

Agencies reject multi-million dollar chance to capture gas, protect climate


Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9622

WildEarth Guardians and Earthjustice today called on federal agencies to withdraw a permit for a Western Colorado coal mine expansion that would waste massive amounts of methane and contribute to global warming.

Methane — also known as natural gas — is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, yet is also a valuable energy source.

"Not only is this a waste of valuable resources, it’s worsening global warming," said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians.  "We aim to put an end to this needless waste and safeguard the climate."

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Denver, WildEarth Guardians, represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice, challenges the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior for ignoring global warming impacts of enlarging the West Elk coal mine. The lawsuit aims to overturn the decision authorizing the mine to expand and vent 7 million cubic feet of methane daily.

The Forest Service estimates that the amount of wasted methane would be enough to heat more than 34,000 homes for 12 years. Based on current natural gas prices, the methane’s value would be approximately $21 million annually and more than $250 million over the life of the mine expansion.

"This is the ultimate hypocrisy," said Nichols. "While the Bush Administration is clamoring for more and more natural gas drilling in Colorado, they’re authorizing a massive waste of this valuable resource."

The West Elk coal mine, near Paonia in Gunnison County, is operated by Mountain Coal Company, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, a multinational coal company based in St. Louis. Last July, the Forest Service and Interior Department permitted Arch Coal to expand the mine, drill 168 drainage wells to vent methane, and build nearly 23 miles of new roads on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests.

Methane must be released from a coal seam before it can be safely mined. But rather than venting, the gas can be captured for use or, as a last resort, flared. These alternatives were not seriously reviewed by the agencies, yet a number of coal mines throughout the U.S., and even the world, are capturing methane and safely flaring. In August 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pointed out that the West Elk Mine was the fourth largest emitter of methane from an underground coal mine in the U.S. and one of only 12 mines in the country that does not capture vented methane for use.

The decision by the Forest Service and Interior Department comes at the heels of Gov. Bill Ritter’s April 2008 executive order calling for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases below 2005 levels by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. The agencies predict that the volume of wasted methane will increase Colorado’s greenhouse gas pollution by more than 1 percent, defying Gov. Ritter’s greenhouse gas reduction goals and putting the climate at increasing risk.

"The federal government is allowing this massive release of methane just as we’re beginning to tackle climate change here in Colorado," said Ted Zukoski, the Earthjustice attorney who filed the suit on behalf of WildEarth Guardians. "It not only undercuts our governor, but undercuts progress toward meeting our greenhouse gas reduction goals."

Today’s lawsuit charges the Forest Service and Department of the Interior for violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to even consider alternatives to methane venting and to account for the impacts of methane venting on global warming.

See the complaint here.

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